Recognizing the often hidden hazards posed by toxic chemicals that pervade our lives, Congress has enacted a variety of laws designed to protect people and the environment from both short- and long-term health problems. The Superfund legislation aims to ensure that polluters pay for contaminating land and water. The Toxic Substances Control Act requires EPA to review all new chemicals before they go on the market. And a patchwork of other federal laws address toxic chemicals as they are released into the air and water, applied to crops to fight pests, or added to consumer products. Despite the efforts of Congress and government agencies, those who profit from introducing hazardous pollutants into the environment lobby hard to prevent stiff regulatory enforcement and distort scientific evidence of harm.
CPR Member Scholars' work in this area includes research and analysis related to the federal government's IRIS database, Superfund, BPA, the Toxics Substances Control Act, and more.
When Congress created Superfund in 1980 to clean toxic waste dumps, the funding mechanism for cleanups included a tax on polluting industries. In the 1990s, Congress let that tax lapse, and today, Superfund is far behind on cleanups, meaning that Americans living near toxic dump sites are unnecessarily exposed to toxic hazards.
The endocrine disruptor BPA can be found in baby bottles, water bottles, and in the resin lining of food and beverage cans. Federal action to protect Americans from its potential harm has been achingly slow. CPR Member Scholars propose solutions in the form of a federal action plan.
Congress created the Superfund program to drive the cleanup of more than 1,000 sites across the nation that had been polluted with toxic wastes. But after the Gingrich Revolution, Congress let lapse the principal funding mechanism -- a tax on the industries whose toxic pollution poisoned the sites. Predictably, cleanups have slowed to a crawl, endangering public health in the areas surrounding toxic waste sites. The problem came into particularly bold relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when it was revealed that several still-polluted Superfund sites had been flooded.
Other efforts to combat toxic pollution are important, too. One vital initiative is the federal government's Toxic Release Inventory, a compilation of industry-reported toxic emissions that can serve as a valuable tool for policymakers and regulatory enforcement efforts.
Another significant toxics issue has to do with what we don’t know about toxics. Many Americans would be surprised to discover that most of the chemicals used in commerce have never been adequately tested for safety. CPR Member Scholars have worked both to illuminate and overcome the resulting “data gap.”
In mid-2013, proposals began to circulate on Capitol Hill for updates to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the principal law governing the use of chemicals in commerce. Some 80,000 chemicals are in use, but only a slim minority of those have been tested by EPA for safety. Much of the blame for that belongs to TSCA provisions that establish an unreasonably high bar for EPA decisions about whether to review a chemical's safety. In addition, as CPR Member Scholar Noah Sachs and Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz write "When Congress enacted TSCA, the final legislation reflected a deal under which chemicals then on the market were "grandfathered" in, while new chemicals would be subject to a quick review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But experience shows that a vast majority of those reviews are based on inadequate data."
Testing: TSCA creates a “Catch 22” for EPA, requiring that the agency show a chemical may present an unreasonable risk of harm to human health or the environment before it can demand new test data that would help the agency determine whether it can make that case. The provision should be scrapped and replaced with language that gives EPA broad authority to demand test data for any reason related to implementation of the Act.
Standard of review: The federal courts’ crabbed reading of TSCA has left Americans vulnerable to a regulatory system in which chemicals are assumed safe until proven hazardous, and EPA’s efforts to make a case to the contrary are stymied by insufficient information and limited authority to regulate. A novel, competition-based standard of review would transform the TSCA framework from “anything goes” to “the best of what science can offer.”
Deadlines: Time and again, Congress has gone back to rewrite public health statutes to demand that regulatory agencies take specific actions according to specific schedules. TSCA has never undergone comprehensive revisions along those lines, which is why the safety of thousands of chemicals has never been reviewed by EPA. It is high time Congress set a schedule for review.
Preemption: State legislatures, regulatory agencies, and courts play valuable roles in preventing toxic exposures and ensuring compensation for people who are adversely affected by dangerous chemicals. TSCA must encourage vibrant state action to protect people and the environment by preempting only those laws that make compliance with federal standards impossible.
In an October 2013 Issue Alert, CPR Member Scholars Emily Hammond,Thomas McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, and Wendy Wagner, and CPR Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin analyze competing bills for reforming TSCA: the more protective Safer Chemical Act (SCA) and the industry-backed Chemical Safety Improvements Act (CSIA). Both fall short of what is needed to fix TSCA, but to widely varying degrees, they write. In particular, the industry-backed CSIA would do harm to the overal framework protecting Americans from unsafe chemicals in commerce. The bill, they explain, would undercut two of the three legs of that framework: state regulation of chemicals, and the state and federal civil justice systems that allow victims of harmful exposures to hold industry accountable in court. The bill's challenge to state regulation has particular implications for California, where that state’s Proposition 65 program prohibits the discharge into drinking water sources of chemicals that are carcinogenic or cause reproductive problems and requires businesses to warn the public if their products contain these chemicals.
In September 2012, CPR Member Scholar Rena Steinzor and Policy Analyst Waydin Radin published a white paper exposing the work of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) and Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), two industry advocacy groups that have undue influence on the regulation of toxic chemicals. The two firms specialize in a particularly insidious brand of “dirty” science by recruiting EPA experts to co-author papers and participate in policy-making workshops that are heavily biased toward manufacturer interests.
Read about CPR Member Scholars’ work on toxics and Superfund:
Analysis of TSCA Reform Proposals. Read TSCA Reform: Preserving Tort and Regulatory Approaches, CPR Issue Alert 1309, October 2013, by CPR Member Scholars Emily Hammond,Thomas McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, and Wendy Wagner, and CPR Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin analyzing competing bills for reforming TSCA: the more protective Safer Chemical Act (SCA) and the industry-backed Chemical Safety Improvements Act (CSIA). Also check out the day-of release blog post, and the news release.
Mintz Testimony on Enforcement. Read Joel Mintz's June 6, 2012 testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power on EPA's enforcement record during the Obama years.
Proposed Executive Orders for the Obama Administration. In November 2008, the Center for Progressive Reform transmitted to the Obama Transition Team a slate of seven Executive Orders addressing a series of critical issues, including climate change, transparency in government, environmental justice, children's exposure to toxics, citizens' right to sue corporations whose products cause them harm, and stewardship of public lands. Read a web article about the proposals, and read the white paper itself, Protecting Public Health and the Environment by the Stroke of a Presidential Pen (3.2 meg download). Or read the news release.
Superfund. In June 2006, CPR, together with the Center for American Progress, released a joint report highlighting the achingly slow pace of Superfund cleanups, pinpointing the worst toxic waste sites in the nation’s ten most populous states, and identifying which communities are paying the price for the Superfund slowdown. Read about the report and about other Member Scholars’ work on Superfund issues.
Data Gaps. Read Closing Data Gaps, CPR Member Scholar John Applegate's innovative proposal for addressing the difficult problem of the significant gaps in what EPA knows about the dangers of chemicals now used in commerce. Or read the news release. (April 2006) Or read Rena Steinzor, Katherine Baer, and Matthew Shudtz's white paper on the significant gaps in what EPA knows about the dangers of chemicals now on the market and in common use, gaps reflected in EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), arguably the world's most prominent toxicological database: Overcoming Environmental Data Gaps: Why What EPA Doesn't Know about Toxic Chemicals Can Hurt (CPR White Paper #510, July 2005). Or read CPR Member Scholar Rena Steinzor and CPR Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz's April 2008 letter to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson, about proposed “Integrated Risk Information System Assessment Development Procedures” that would slow the process of filling significant gaps.